With the removal of many powerful cards from the old Standard (Dig Through Time, Siege Rhino, Rally, fetchlands) and the arrival of many great cards from Shadows over Innistrad (Avacyn, Thalia’s Lieutenant, Duskwatch Recruiter, Thing in the Ice, etc.), I expected the format to experience a radical shift. The first batch of results did not disappoint—Bant Company was a known quantity, but new decks like Humans and Goggles emerged and proved to be very efficient.
It was with a resigned attitude that I played a couple of games with Esper Dragons during testing. It couldn’t be good, right? The two most popular decks were super fast and/or had a ton of flash creatures—it lost Dig Through Time and Crux of Fate, the mana base was significantly worse, and so on.
To my surprise, I was winning a lot with it. I was beating Humans and Bant over half the time—matchups that I did not expect to beat since I thought my card quality was low compared to what it had once been. More than that, as decks evolved to beat those aggressive decks, they became worse and worse against Esper. The phrase “of course you can’t beat Esper, but…” kept being uttered over and over in our testing house, and I decided to invest a bit more into it.
For about a week, Thiago, Ivan, Shuhei, Ondrej and I worked on the Esper deck as other players worked on different archetypes, to a point where I think we arrived at a decent version. It’s not a broken deck, but it’s quite good, and I’m very familiar with it, so that’s a big plus. I know I won’t have trouble deciding which hands to keep, which macro-lines to take, or which cards to side in or out even if scenarios are new to me since I have enough experience with it to adapt my thinking to each situation.
Our team has a deck that I think is quite good—GW Tokens. I considered audibling to it at the last minute (we only got to it in the last 2 days), but thought I didn’t have enough time to get to a point where I was comfortable with the list. I do think it’s a great deck and the people who are playing it will likely do well, but I like my chances a bit more with Esper as I think I’m more prepared for the unknown with it. I hope I’m not giving up on the next Eldrazi, as I would really regret that, but this seems to be more of a “pick a deck” format rather than a “break it” format to me.
In the end, Shuhei, Ivan, and I stuck to Esper, and everyone else changed to GW. Our lists are identical with the exception of the mana base (I have Evolving Wilds, they don’t) and 1 card main and 1 sideboard (Ivan does not like Ob-Nixilis or Dark Petition).
The deck plays as it has always played, except the late game is now worse since you have no Dig Through Time. You have to be a bit more aggressive. The deck remains competitive because Dragonlord Ojutai is simply insane—there’s no more Crackling Doom to stop it and it’s the only expensive creature in the format that matches up well against Reflector Mage other than Avacyn.
Your ideal game is a tapland turn 1, then spells on turns 2-4 to react to what your opponent is doing, and then a turn-5 Ojutai. If you manage to do that, you’ll beat almost any deck—even the ones that can answer Ojutai because you don’t have to attack, so you force a scenario in which they have to keep open mana every turn and you don’t. At some point you’ll draw a Transgress, a counterspell, or a removal for Avacyn, and then you can freely attack and win the game. Dragonlord Silumgar is bad versus Reflector Mage and Declaration in Stone, but it matches up well against everything else and it doesn’t die to Ultimate Price or Grasp.
I think Bant is a slightly favorable matchup, and UW Humans is also favored. BW midrange is slightly bad game 1 (which is a reversal of what you’ve historically had in this matchup) but improves after sideboard (also a reversal). In fact, I think this deck gets quite a bit better after board a lot of the time because your cards are either good or bad (they’re either removal or anti-control cards) so you can adapt, whereas people need both anti-control cards and anti-creature cards against you. You can take out all of your removal against some people, but no one can do that versus you or they lose to Ojutai and Jace since those can’t be Duressed or Negated. Ramp is a bad matchup that gets a lot better post-sideboard, and the GW Tokens the rest of our team is playing is also a bad matchup. Random control decks like Goggles and Jund are good matchups, and the more people tune their decks to beat aggro the worse they are against you.